Kobe Bryant’s mother is trying to auction off old high school stuff he left in her house, and Bryant is trying to stop her. Bryant contends that the things belong to him; his mom says he left them there and said he didn’t want them. She wants to use the $450,000 advance from the auction house to buy a new home. Is this argument really about money? Surely Bryant has enough money to purchase multiple homes for his mother. Whichever side of the controversy you stand on, it points out a common problem. Depending on your age, chances are you are either warehousing stuff that belongs to your grown children, or you’ve left stuff in your parents’ home.
What kinds of things get left? Based on the thousands of people we’ve helped downsize and move, it varies, but there are common themes. Sports paraphernalia are a big category, especially trophies and equipment. So are school things: old papers, projects and textbooks. Old clothing, hobbies, musical instruments and childhood toys are kept too. Wedding dresses are especially common, even when the marriage has ended. As one client put it, “My daughter has been divorced twice. She got rid of both the husbands and I am left with both wedding dresses.”
Truth be told, our household was no different. One son left camping equipment, Pinewood Derby cars and other residue of his years in scouting. My daughter left every spelling test she had ever taken, and my youngest left t-shirts and sports trophies, including Continue reading
“You know, some of Mom’s shirts are stained. You should take her shopping for some new clothes.” My brother, who comes in town twice a year, was full of suggestions. He didn’t have time to help with any of them, but he had lots of ideas about what I should be doing.
When holidays roll around, you are surrounded by siblings and family members who come to see Mom and Dad. Despite the fact that they live too far away to pitch in or can’t seem to fit it into their schedules, they all seem to have advice on how you could be a better caregiver. Then, to add salt to the wound, your Mom adds, “Look, Michael took me to the grocery store.” One trip to the grocery store and he is a saint. What about the hours you log every week, doing all the things that need to be done?
If this happens to you, here are 5 great tips from Griswold Special Care on how to handle family criticism:
1. Communicate ahead of time.
Your siblings don’t know about the challenges you’re facing unless you tell them. Stave off criticism in advance by sending a letter or email to family members. Let them in on the details–that Dad now requires weekly trips to the physical therapist, or that Mom is on a new brand of medication because the other kind upsets her stomach. It’s likely they are unaware of the details of your parents’ care. If they understand the situation and the extent of your involvement, they may express appreciaion for all you do. At the very least, they may be less hurtful and more helpful.
2. Mentally prepare a response to critical comments.
Let’s say your sister likes to mention that you should be visiting Mom and Dad more often. If you go in with a response thought out ahead of time, you’ll be less likely to snap at her and make your holiday gathering uncomfortable. One way to deflect an argument is to simply agree, or to ask a question — how often do they think you should be there? You may find that the issue is not really about how often you visit, but their worry about your parents.
3. Let them know how they can help.
Tell your family know how the burden of caregiving is impacting your life. Let them know there are specific ways they can pitch in from a distance. Give them a list and ask them to sign up before they leave town. If your brother criticizes you for not asking the doctor about a specific therapy, respond with, “I know you really care about this issue. Why don’t you ask Dad’s doctor about that yourself at his appointment next week? He would appreciate your being there, and if you go with him, you will know exactly what’s going on.” If he says he can’t go, offer to set up an email invitation to talk with the doctor.
4. Don’t take it personally.
This is easier said than done, but dealing with criticism is easier if you remind yourself that not every insult has to do with you. Your brother may be lashing out because he feels guilty for not visiting your parents enough. Your sister may be critical because she’s alone for the holidays. Sometimes siblings have had a dysfunctional relationship for a long time, and caregiving is simply another venue to play out old themes. If you can detach yourself from the emotional aspect of the situation, it will help you stay in control. You may want to just ask what they are feeling. The holidays can also be loaded with “old family issues” that lurk behind emotional reactions in the present. If the holidays have been stressful for your family in the past, suggest that everyone makes the most of the time together and plan a time to talk about care issues after the holidays when people are less tense and have more focus.
5. Don’t try to please everyone.
Remember that you’re doing your best to take care of Mom and Dad, and that most of the time, your best is pretty darn good. It’s because of you that your parents are here and able to enjoy the holidays with family. So give yourself a pat on the back and let the criticism roll has helped you in these tough family situations?
“Margie Dear, I am moving and I need your help.” So began the call from my 91-year old Aunt Betty. Never mind that I have used my real name, Margit, for 38 years. To Aunt Betty, I will always be Margie. Betty has buried three husbands, and her only daughter, my first cousin, died at 20. So I went to Florida to help her move from a large 2-bedroom apartment to a retirement community.
Betty had moved into the community on Monday, taking only two suitcases. New furniture had been purchased for the apartment, because she had brought none with her when she moved from Philadelphia 8 years earlier. My job was to help her go through her belongings at the old apartment, identify what she wanted, and have it brought to the retirement community. In short, I needed to help her sort through and downsize. No problem. After all, I am a Senior Move Manager. But I am also, I discovered, a niece, and throughout the weekend, these two different roles collided.
Like many of my clients, Aunt Betty had a hard time parting with items I knew she would never use. Sometimes, I could cajole her into letting something go.
“But I loved this lamp,” she said, pointing to a 40-inch tall lamp that was still in its shipping box from 8 years ago. “Well, not enough to use it for the past 8 years,” I replied. She laughed and said, “You’re right.” These interactions – I refer to them as reality checks– were easy, because they did not diminish her as a person.
It was harder when we looked at large serving dishes. “I may have a dinner party,” she said. Betty is very frail. She uses a walker and qualifies for independent living only because Bea, her aid, is with her 6 days per week. I couldn’t say to her, “Betty, you haven’t made a meal for yourself in months. “ She does not need to be reminded that reality is cruel. It was similar when we went through clothing she insisted she might wear someday. I couldn’t remind her that she wears only pants with elastic waists so she can pull them up herself, and that they need to be full enough to accommodate the disposable underwear she now uses. Some memories and images of ourselves need to be preserved as who we once were.
Even though much of what she wanted to take would never we worn or used, I knew there was space for it in the new apartment. Her decisions didn’t have to be perfect or wise, but they were her decisions, and the Senior Move Manager in me accepted that. Later that day we met with a Move Management colleague whose staff would handle the packing and transport of clothing and other items after I left. When I took my colleague aside and said, “If you find any clothing that is torn or stained, discard it,” I was horrified. I would never say that about a client’s belongings! Suddenly, I was no longer a Senior Move Manager, I was a family member. The ease with which I had lost professional objectivity and slid into expediency was alarming. Yet, I understood why adult children are so often pulled in this direction. They’re coping with their own mixed feelings about their evolving role and added responsibilities, as well as with changes they see in their parents. When expediency wins, it’s not from lack of concern, it’s from lack of time.
As it turns out, the next day was when the roles of Senior Move Manager and family member most collided. I had arrived Saturday morning and Betty and I had worked throughout the weekend. It was 8 PM Sunday evening when we arrived at her new apartment with a load of pictures and other items in the car. Since Betty walks very slowly, I dropped her at the door and suggested that she start toward her second floor apartment while I unloaded everything onto the hotel dolly kept in the lobby for such purposes. When I reached the apartment 15 minutes later, there was no answer. Worried, I began walking through the hallways. I found Betty on the first floor. “I got lost, I couldn’t find my apartment,” she said “Then I got so tired, I had to sit down.” “Your apartment number is on your walker and also on the keys around your neck,” I gently reminded her. “I know, but I just couldn’t figure it out,” she said. And then I realized, I was no longer the Senior Move Manager; I was family.
Like so many family members, I had come in for a weekend determined to get things done in the time frame I had allotted, and I had put my need for productivity ahead of Betty’s need to rest or enjoy my visit. I wanted to be finished; Betty wanted us to have time to talk.
The Senior Move Manager in me emerged again as I reflected on what I had seen and inadvertently, caused. Betty had moved on Monday, a transition that was both hard and emotional. She barely had time to adjust to her new environment, when I swooped in and created two incredibly long, emotional days. I was exhausted; I can’t imagine what she must have felt like. As a Move Manager, I know that stress, emotions and anxiety take a particular toll on seniors, a toll that often manifests as memory loss and disorganized thinking. Whatever cognitive status Betty had before the move, what I had observed Sunday night was Betty under the worst conditions. I had caused it, and I should have known better.
When I visited Betty Monday morning, I apologized for exhausting her so much over the weekend. “Oh honey, I just feel so badly that you worked so hard,” she said. And there she was, the Betty I knew, parenting me, rewarding me for coming down to help. Yet, in her next sentence, she was confused about whether she was in Florida or Philadelphia. The juxtaposition of the old Betty and the new Betty was sobering.
In the days that followed, I alerted family members who might call that Betty might not be herself for a while. I explained that the stress and emotions of the move had taken a toll, and that with time, I was hopeful she would rebound and be more like her old self. And in fact, in recent phone conversations, she has sounded more like herself.
Yet Betty is aware that she has changed. “My memory has gotten so bad’ she said recently, clearly disturbed, “I am not the person I used to be.” To dispute what she knows to be true would be condescending. I want her to know that even if her cognitive status is changing, she is still the same person to me, and that I still love her. “I have noticed a change from months ago,” I responded. “I think you are about 90% of the Betty I know, and that’s OK with me.” Betty smiled. I think being 90% of Betty was OK with her, too.
As a Senior Move Manager, I see all sorts of client treasures, so it has made me think about my own l treasures as well. If you went to my home, you probably would not notice my treasures, even though they are in plain view. That’s because they look ordinary. They don’t have a lot of material value. They’re my treasures because they have special meaning to me.
My first treasure is a common blue and white mug — a souvenir from a trip to the Bahamas with my friend Karen when we were both single. For years, the mug had no special meaning; I kept it on my desk to hold pens. Eight years later, at 36, Karen was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. She died at 38. During this same time period, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, except 21 years later, I am alive and well. It seems so arbitrary; it is hard to make sense of it. So over time, that ordinary blue has taken on new importance. It reminds me of Karen, yes, but even more, it reminds me how lucky I am. I went on to raise a family, to start a business, to help found an industry. That’s one thing about personal treasures. They may not start out as a treasure; they can evolve.
Another one of my personal treasures is a large, framed needlepoint that hangs above my desk. My mother did the needlepoint as a girl in Hungary. She told me how they gathered together to embroider, and one person would read aloud while the others sewed. She ran out of red in the final corner and substituted pink. I love this imperfection. When I graduated from college, my mother had the needlepoint framed and presented it to me as a graduation gift, and that’s when it became a personal treasure. My mother came to America when she was 12, and was put back a grade so she could learn English. When she was 17, she caught TB and spent a year in a sanitarium. By the time she was released, she was two years older than her classmates and never returned to high school. Growing up, I knew my mother never went to college, but I was in my twenties when I realized she had never finished high school. Her brother, my uncle, went to college and became a physician.
Like many baby boomers, I grew up knowing I was expected to go to college. But for my mother, it was more than an expectation, it was a need. I knew how much it bothered my mother that she did not have an education, and how much pleasure she took from my academic successes. From the time I was in junior high, I asked her to read every novel I loved so we could discuss it together. Over the years, we shared dozens of books we laughed and cried over. If in part she lived thru me, I didn’t mind; I enjoyed her support and was happy to give her pleasure. So when my mother unwrapped the needlepoint, I knew it was the perfect gift. It was our graduation gift, hers and mine together.
As I think about my personal treasures, I realize that I have neglected something important. They are personal treasures, it’s true, but I have kept their meaning personal and private too; I haven’t shared their story. That’s why I am sharing it with you now, and why I will share it with my children. Perhaps that is the real value of personal treasures — the story behind them that only you can share. Because when all is said and done, passing on who you are is the most important legacy you have.